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Senate trio secures six months reprieve for USCG icebreaker Polar Sea

Written by Nick Blenkey

USCGC icebreaker Polar SeaJUNE 18, 2012 — U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Mark Begich (D-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have announced an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard to postpone the scheduled scrapping of the icebreaker Polar Sea through the end of 2012. The agreement was reached during a meeting Thursday between the Senators and the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Robert Papp, Jr.

The icebreaker, based in Seattle, had been scheduled to be drydocked and taken apart beginning June 18.

Scrapping Polar Sea would leave the United States with only one operational icebreaker, the Healy, which was designed primarily as a scientific research vessel and only has medium icebreaking capability. The second heavy duty icebreaker, Polar Star, is currently in Seattle being refitted after years of receiving routine maintenance in “caretaker” status.

The Coast Guard needs a minimum of six heavy duty icebreakers and an additional four medium icebreakers to meet Coast Guard and Navy mission requirements, according to a recent Coast Guard study. The Navy has no icebreaking capability.

“We are glad the Coast Guard has agreed to postpone the scrapping of this valuable icebreaker,” Cantwell said. “This is good news for Washington shipbuilding jobs and for America’s icebreaking capability. The Polar Sea’s hull is still in sound condition. Postponing its scrapping allows the Administration and Congress more time to consider all options for fulfilling the nation’s critical icebreaking missions.”

“The Coast Guard has listened to our call to postpone the drydocking of the Polar Sea so we can continue to explore the most cost-effective measures to ensure the United States has adequate icebreaking capabilities,” said Senator Begich. “Rebuilding this valuable cutter would save taxpayer dollars, create jobs, and increase our ability to operate in the Arctic, and I look forward to continuing to discuss next steps in revitalizing the Polar Sea.”

“As an Arctic Nation, we need to proceed intelligently as opportunities open up in our northern waters,” said Senator Murkowski.”Dismantling critical components of the Polar Sea without a complete plan for its replacement and a year before Polar Star will be back in the water would not be the best course of action. While this may only be a six month respite for the Polar Sea, I will use this period to work through my role on the Appropriations Committee to make America’s icebreaking capacity a top priority.”

As witnessed this winter, when the Healy cut a path through Arctic ice to the town of Nome, Alaska, icebreakers fill a unique and vital role in national safety, security and environmental operations at sea.

“Vigor Industrial is proud to have serviced and maintained the Coast Guard Icebreakers for many years,” said Frank Foti, CEO of Vigor Industrial, which maintains the Polar Sea, Polar Star and the Healy. “We greatly respect and appreciate the commitment of Senator Cantwell to ensure that a viable and effective Coast Guard icebreaking capacity is maintained. As commerce and national security concerns grow throughout the Arctic region, it is essential that our nation has a strong and ready icebreaking fleet. We know Senator Cantwell understands that and we are grateful for her leadership and effectiveness in this area.”

Senators Cantwell, Begich and Murkowski have a history of working together to preserve and upgrade the nation’s icebreaker fleet. Senators Cantwell and Begich were instrumental in securing language in the 2010 Coast Guard Reauthorization Act that required the Coast Guard to evaluate the costs and benefits of building new vessels versus refurbishing the existing vessels.

The three cosponsored legislation in September 2011 that would prevent the decommissioning and scrapping of the Polar Sea and require the release of the Coast Guard’s business case analysis of icebreaker needs required by the 2010 Coast Guard Reauthorization Act.

On August 18, 2011, Senators Cantwell and Begich urged the Coast Guard to postpone decommissioning the Polar Sea until a business analysis could be completed to determine the most cost-effective way to revitalize the nation’s aging polar icebreaker fleet. In a letter sent to Admiral Papp, the Senators said the lack of icebreaking capacity was unacceptable.

Senators Cantwell also secured Senate Commerce Committee approval on November 2, 2011, of her legislation which would stop the decommissioning or scrapping of the Polar Sea.Senator Cantwell’s amendment was included in the 2012 Coast Guard Authorization Act sponsored by Senators Begich, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and is pending consideration by the full Senate. Also on November 2, 2011, Senator Cantwell’s language was incorporated into the Maritime Administration Authorization Act of 2011, which requires the Coast Guard to maintain the current icebreaker fleet home ported in Seattle. The legislation is pending consideration by the full Senate.

The polar ice cap melting has opened new passageways through the Arctic ice, creating new opportunity for commerce, which creates national security, law enforcement and maritime safety concerns. Additionally, emerging environmental protection concerns, potential resource development and scientific research critical to understanding global climate change require vessels capable of polar operations. Historically, these vessels have also helped resupply the McMurdo Station, the main U.S. station in Antarctica on the southern tip of Ross Island in Antarctica, but over the last few years the U.S. has been forced to contract foreign icebreaking to fulfill this national need.

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